It’s a crowded night at the theater. The play is The Shaughraun, and everyone enjoys the melodrama. In particular, the audience is enthralled by the scene in which the male lead departs from his lover, who leans against the mantelpiece with her head in her hands. At the door he creeps back to kiss a ribbon falling down her back, and she never realizes what he’s done. Archer comes to see the play just for this scene, thinking it as good as anything in Paris or London.
This scene of leave-taking occurs just after a scene in which Archer has departed from Ellen’s presence, suggesting that Archer and Ellen may be suppressing certain feelings that are being played out at the theater. Archer’s attitude again marks New York as culturally inferior to Europe.
On this night, the scene reminds Archer of him leaving Ellen Olenska after their discussion about her divorce. There’s no real resemblance between the two situations; the people don’t look similar and Archer and Ellen aren’t lovers. But Ellen somehow makes everything tragic and moving; she seems like someone to whom things will always happen no matter how much she tries to avoid them. Her lack of surprise at anything makes it seem like the general pitch of her life is particularly high.
The fact that this scene reminds Archer of Ellen reinforces the growing sense that he has feelings for her, though he doesn’t recognize them yet. Archer will later feel that he is someone to whom nothing will ever happen; perhaps his sense of Ellen as the opposite is part of what attracts him to her. However, it also makes it harder for her to find acceptance in society.
Archer left Ellen believing that she probably did become lovers with the secretary who helped her escape from her husband. Archer can understand how this happened, but in the eyes of the law and society, it makes her no better than her husband. He made her see this despite the pain it caused him. He’s glad that he learned her secret rather than someone less sympathetic, and he assured Mr. Letterblair and the Mingotts that Ellen decided against a divorce. Mrs. Welland and Mrs. Mingott were very grateful to him.
Society refuses to consider people’s situations on a case-by-case basis; if Ellen has had an affair, she must be rejected, no matter the circumstances. Archer seems to be congratulating himself on his liberal attitude towards her background, reinforcing the sense that he sometimes condescends to her. Besides, he has gained credibility and esteem in his future family by convincing Ellen to remain unhappy.
As the curtain falls on the scene, Archer’s eyes fill with tears and he rises to leave. Just then, he sees Ellen sitting in a box with the Beauforts. Mrs. Beaufort gestures to him, and he goes to the box and sits down behind Ellen. Sillerton Jackson is telling Mrs. Beaufort about Mrs. Struthers’s last party. Ellen quietly asks whether Archer thinks that the play character will send his lover yellow roses. Archer blushes. He has anonymously sent Ellen roses each time he has visited her, but he didn’t realize she knew he had done so. He says he was going to leave to preserve the scene in his mind.
The fact that the reader hasn’t seen Archer sending these additional yellow roses makes his action seem particularly illicit—he’s hiding it even from readers. Ellen is obviously thinking along similar lines, since she connects their lives to this extremely romantic play scene, essentially putting them in the roles of the lovers through her allusion to the roses. This is Ellen’s most flirtatiously bold move towards Archer so far.
Ellen asks what Archer does while May is gone, and he says he works. As they always do at this time of year, the Wellands have left for St. Augustine for Mr. Welland’s health. No one can interfere with Mr. Welland’s habits, and he must have his wife and daughter with him for peace of mind. The Wellands all idolize him. They trust the family physician because Mr. Welland has never caught pneumonia, and since the doctor insists they go to St. Augustine, the hastened announcement of May’s engagement wasn’t about to change their plans. Though Archer would have liked to join them there, they would have thought him frivolous for abandoning his work.
The fact that May is out of town makes the situation between Archer and Ellen seem even more charged; Archer doesn’t have May there to bring him back to society’s conventional views. Mr. Welland is representative of the sameness and fragility of New York society; he’s essentially a hypochondriac, and he insists, above all, on routine. He also demonstrates the prison-like quality of marriage, as his whims dictate the lives of his family members.
Ellen says that she has done as Archer advised. She knows that he was right. As Beaufort begins to speak, Archer leaves the theater. The day before, he got a letter from May asking him to be good to Ellen, who is lonely. May can tell that New York seems dull to her after everything she had in her old life, and Archer is one of the only people who can amuse her. He loves May for this letter, but he doesn’t plan to act on it. There are plenty of men waiting to help Ellen. Even so, he thinks May is right in believing her to be lonely and unhappy.
Although Ellen seems more independent than many of the women in this book, she’s quick to bow to society’s dictates in order to fit in as a New Yorker. Ironically, May is unwittingly encouraging her fiancé to spend more time with a woman he’s attracted to. Archer likes May’s compassion for Ellen and her trust in him. He still doesn’t seem to recognize his own feelings for Ellen.